Living with an inoperable brain tumor, 16-year-old John Salvi faced numerous obstacles, and of them, the most ordinary also was the most devastating:
Fifteen pounds lighter, with no hair and a medical access port sticking out of his chest, the Wilmette resident often struggled to look at his reflection.
“To see this frail individual in the mirror, it was not easy,” he said. “I didn’t feel great, didn’t look great and on top of that had a vascular access port that reminded me constantly that I wasn’t normal.”
Normal became Salvi’s mission, and to him, that meant joining his fellow New Trier rowers for training and eventually on the water.
What happened in the next 18 months — ascension to an elite, record-breaking rower and a top-boat co-captain — did not seem possible when Salvi arrived at tryouts at the beginning of the 2021 school year.
“Very simply, we thought, ‘How is he doing this, coming in here with brain cancer?’” said Kannan Alford, fellow New Trier varsity rower and co-captain. “It was so unbelievable. And John was kind of nonchalant about it.”
For Salvi, it wasn’t really a choice. He needed it.
“There was a shock factor, people asking ‘Are you all right?’” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m here. I’m going to stay here. I’m going to do my best.’ It helped save me.”
Trouble began in early 2021 when Salvi sought medical answers for persistent, painful headaches so bad he had to miss practice. Doctors found a rare type of brain tumor, germinoma, near his brain stem.
Since an operation to remove the tumor was too dangerous to remove, as treatment, Salvi endured round after round of chemotherapy and proton radiation to neutralize the growth.
His initial treatments forced him out of New Trier Rowing’s 2021 spring campaign. Though an obvious and necessary byproduct of a cancer diagnosis, to John Salvi, his absence from his rowing family was shameful.
“I can remember feeling like I was really letting my team down,” he said. “I know that’s weird, but I was in this position to compete with them. I really just wanted to win something with them and I wanted to prove to them that I wasn’t going to let this stop me. … I wasn’t going to give up who I was because I had this roadblock.”
Around the same time, during a stint at Lurie Children’s Hospital, Salvi did not like what he was hearing.
The doctors and nurses were kind and forthright, but their messaging did not match Salvi’s mindset. He felt like they were preparing him for the worst. He began to feel like “a victim,” and he didn’t want to be one.
“I didn’t really like that,” he said, “to feel like I’m owed something, some karmic solution. I don’t think that’s true.”
Fast forward to the fall, and Salvi had the all the motivation he needed to get back to work.
His treatments ran into the 2021-’22 school year, and after each session, he would go to school and then rowing practice. John’s mother, Alice Salvi, said that with the energy the treatments demanded, she could not believe her son was putting in 14-plus-hour days that included strenuous activity.
And then do it all over the next day.
“He didn’t get home until after 7 to have dinner and then start the whole thing over again,” she said. “It’s a rigorous schedule and it’s amazing he kept that up. That to me is the most impressive thing. His teammates kept him going; rowing kept him going.”
Yes, he was tired — exhausted in fact. A walk past the school cafeteria left him nauseated. He could not complete a mile run. The idea of rowing for miles on the ergometer rowing machine — or erg — was daunting.
Salvi pushed through, confident that the best was to come. He said he owed it to himself and especially his teammates to try. And he was right. Surrounded by his teammates, everything changed.
“Once I got back on the erg, practicing with them, I felt like there was nothing to stop me,” Salvi said. “Arguably things were stopping me, but I was there with my team and that gave me that physical and mental boost.”
The journey to normal was underway — but not imminent.
Months needed to pass for Salvi to regain his weight and strength, and doctors continuously monitored the tumor in his head.
With positive results, Salvi’s port was removed in the fall. His hair grew back by the new year — even in the balloon-shaped bald spot up front. And seeing improvement, doctors pushed his appointments to every three months. Then, every six.
John Salvi recognized his reflection. The mirror was no longer a concern.
“It’s hard to explain. My hair fell out in a weird pattern. I needed it to grow back in that area to feel like I was myself again,” he said.
All the while, Salvi was training and competing with New Trier in the fall and spring seasons last school year. With the headaches a “distant memory,” he was a leader among his teammates, and his spring performance impressed Alford, among others.
Alford explained that in the fall Salvi recorded a 2,000-meter erg time of 6 minutes 14 seconds, tops in the program. In the spring, he broke that mark. He was back and an inspiration to his teammates, Alford said.
“Right then, it was like he killed the cancer John,” Alford said. “His hair had grown back, he didn’t have [the port] in his chest. I’d say he was 100 percent back.”
He added, “He really evolved as a person through the cancer treatments. He had a lot more confidence in himself and saw a lot of life’s challenges are more trivial. He gained a ton of perspective and became such a good leader this fall.”
Salvi was stronger than ever when tryouts came around this past August. He was named to New Trier’s top boat Varsity 8 and a co-captain of the boys varsity team and the season was off to a strong start when a common day on the erg presented a new challenge.
In a 6,000-meter session, Salvi broke 20 minutes, clocking in at 19 minutes 55 seconds — an elite time but also a frustrating one. It was just half a second from New Trier’s all-time mark.
So just a week later, on Oct. 4, he gave it another go. Alford was there to witness and said Salvi had fallen behind the pace so much that he thought he had no chance at the record. Then, in the final 300 meters, he saw something he’d never seen.
“With the 300 meters left, it was like superhuman what he did,” Alford said. “The most exciting live sporting thing I’ve seen is John Salvi pulling the last 300 of this 6K.”
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Salvi pulled it off by 0.1 seconds, taking down a decade-old New Trier record.
“It feels amazing. I feel like I accomplished something, but most importantly showed my team that we can do a lot this year,” he said. “I don’t know what contribution I’m making toward them as a captain … but I feel like there are tangible things like this record that shows this year is special, this year is significant, they are significant. And I would not rather spend my effort anywhere else.”
The hits kept coming this fall. Salvi and New Trier’s Varsity 8 boat finished fifth overall — first among high school teams — at the prestigious Head of the Charles regatta on Oct. 20-22 in Boston.
All that and he and the New Trier rowers still have the spring season to look forward to.
“As negative a year as it was last year, this year has been the complete flip side,” Alice Salvi said. “There have been a lot of great, positive things. I’m really happy because the poor kid needed something positive in his life.”
John Salvi is grateful for the position he is in and everything that got him here — including cancer.
Instead of blaming it for nearly a year of pain and missed opportunities, Salvi thanked cancer for giving him a chance to prove himself and praised rowing for being his outlet.
“I was driven by the understanding that somewhere down the line I would be grateful for having stood through it,” he said. “I wanted to come out [of treatment] a different way than anyone thought I would — stronger, better. It gave me the perfect opportunity to do that. It’s so weird to say, but I do think it made me stronger.
“Rowing gave me a place to put my commitment, to put my time,” he continued. “It made me feel better. I knew working back from what I had lost with people around me who I admired was really a large part, if not the biggest part, of my recovery process.”
This article originally appeared in The Record North Shore, a local news nonprofit.